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An Appreciation of Alice Munro


ISSUE:  Summer 2006

 
There is nothing exotic or off-putting in the opening paragraph or two of an Alice Munro story. The author puts her hand on your shoulder and invites you into her fictional world. She is friendly, and there is a neighborly quality to her narrative prose. She starts in a small place and universalizes characters and lives that we might otherwise overlook. It is as if you are sitting at a table, and she’s going to tell you a story of what happened a while back, down the street. Her intimate tone is interesting and immediate, and she is relaxed, calm, even inactive, almost seductive. Then, once you are in this fictional world, it becomes more threatening.

You realize there are issues of life and death going on, and Munro’s fiction takes hard swerves abruptly. She is able to break off narrative then start it up later, and it’s still connected. We can travel through time and space and point of view, shifting our relation to time and space, so we’re closer in, or further away. Most contemporary short fiction writers capture moments in time, but Munro telescopes backward and forward. Usually this is only seen in novels.

What this does for us is to stretch the range of the dramatic possibility of the short story, which in the hands of US writers has gone minimalist, become reductive and compressed. Munro’s fiction expands outward, and it shows us that while the short story form can be as compressed and hard as a diamond, it can also be as expansive as a novel.

She is almost a cubist. That’s the way memory works and storytelling goes. It’s not mathematics, it’s not logic. It’s remembering and recounting through memory what happened. This is also the way dreams work. Often good fiction corresponds closely to the structure of dreams, but it is aesthetically and morally purposeful. Munro has the great moral force and intelligence to refuse to judge or idealize her characters, which would be easy to do, and she won’t allow her readers to do so either. Alice Munro’s writing casts her as someone who dares to speak the truth about the world, to say the things that we are ashamed or afraid to tell.

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